ROSEMONT, Ill. -- One of the best birthday presidents Chris Collins can remember receiving came by way of a telephone call from a Northwestern basketball player. It was April 19, 2013, less than a month after Collins was named the Wildcats’ next head coach, and senior forward Drew Crawford was debating a possible transfer. Crawford was reportedly being pursued by multiple schools, including Marquette and Missouri, and his future remained up in the air.
The dismissal of former coach Bill Carmody after last season caused Crawford, a fifth-year player who, were he to leave, would have immediate eligibility at a new program thanks to the NCAA’s graduate transfer clause, to consider every possible option. Staying at Northwestern and leading Collins’ first Wildcats team was one option. Leaving – and potentially winning more games at a more established program – was another.
When Collins picked up his phone, he was thrilled to learn Crawford had chosen the former.
“It was probably the best birthday present I’ve ever gotten,” Collins said Thursday at Big Ten basketball media day. “To have him be on board was huge for our program, because it was the first big step – to have a local guy who’s been a great player say, ‘Look I’m committed to being a part of this going forward’."
With Crawford back, was Northwestern an NCAA Tournament team? That was the question everyone wanted an answer to as soon as the fifth-year senior confirmed his return to Evanston. Most media outlets remained skeptical. In a news release on Crawford’s decision, ESPNChicago reporter Scott Powers wrote that “Crawford’s return should give Collins a more competitive team.”
Not exactly a rousing endorsement of Northwestern’s NCAA Tournament chances.
At least one thing seemed obvious: Crawford made Northwestern better. The 6-5, 215-pound Naperville, Ill. native, who said he sometimes felt pain in his shoulder over several days after games, sat out most of last season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum. He still managed to lead the Wildcats in scoring (13.5 points per game) and was the team’s go-to offensive player over the 10 games he played, posting a team-high 25.2 percent usage rate while taking 29.4 percent of available shots, according to Kenpom.com.
The last time Crawford was healthy for an entire season was 2011-12, when he ranked fifth in the Big Ten in scoring at 16.1 ppg, behind teammate and Euroleague professional John Shurna, who averaged a league-high 19.8. That season, like the two that came before it, Crawford was not the player the Wildcats relied upon to shoulder the bulk of the scoring load. Crawford was, according to Collins, the “second guy."
That changes this season.
“Now it’s his time,” Collins said. “It’s his team and I’m excited to see what he can make of it.”
The new offensive system Collins will implement this season – which will include some elements of Carmody’s Princeton scheme, Collins said Thursday – is so fluid that as many as four positions are interchangeable, according to Collins. So it’s tough to know exactly how or where Collins will deploy Crawford this season, but he – along with junior forward JerShonn Cobb – will be a focal point of the Wildcats’ offense. “I think he and JerShon Cobb will probably be our top two scorers,” Collins said. “They’ll be the top two guys we run our offense through.
The security of knowing where he stood in Northwestern’s offensive pecking order – of knowing he was returning to a situation where he was guaranteed to be a high-minute, go-to, off-the dribble shot creator, someone expected to score in double digits on a consistent basis – was one of the biggest reasons Crawford decided to return to the Wildcats. Collins, while making sure to give Crawford enough breathing room, explained to Crawford how he would be used in the offense, and how his already impressive skills could improve through Collins’ tutelage.
Joining another program, Crawford said, ran the risk of Crawford playing a diminished role behind more proven teammates. Once Crawford felt comfortable with Collins, the decision was simple. At Northwestern, Crawford thought he was getting the best of both worlds: playing with teammates he already felt comfortable around and a coach he, through conversations and one important phone call, had connected with.
“He really wanted me to come back and be a leader on this team,” Crawford said. “That was something that I really have embraced because I’ve been around and I know all my guys so well.
“To be able to come back and play for another year under a new great coach, and still play with my great teammates is a great opportunity for me.”
The attempt to persuade Crawford to return to Northwestern was not a one-man effort. Junior point guard Dave Sobolewski also tried to convince Crawford to stay. “He’s one of my best friends,” Sobolewski said. “I can’t just let him go.” In Sobolewski’s mind, there’s no doubt Crawford made the right decision. “It came down to him knowing that this was his home, and he wouldn’t want to give that away,” he said. “Himself included, everybody knows he made the right choice to stay here.”
Having Crawford should allow Northwestern to win more games than last season, when it went 13-19, including 4-14 against Big Ten competition and 2-10 against the RPI top 50. But it’s hard to say whether he makes the Wildcats an NCAA Tournament team. The answer, as we survey the rest of the national college basketball landscape in general, and the Big Ten in particular, probably lies somewhere closer to “doubtful” than “probably.” But Crawford does give Northwestern a chance.
With him back, predicting Northwestern can at least stir some bubble conversation won’t get you laughed out of a room. Had he decided to transfer, discussing the NCAA Tournament would have been foolish.
“That’s definitely been a goal of the team for a long time now,” Crawford said. “That’s something we all think about, we all have in the back of our minds.”
Maybe the Wildcats will get there. Maybe they won’t. Either way, there’s no uncertainty on this point: Crawford makes that goal more realistic.